Losing Reality:  New Media and our Relation to the World

G.K. Chesterton did not offer his social criticism in essay form only.  His novels are full of commentary, such that at their worst, they read like his essays.  In his fanciful novel Manalive, Chesterton depicts a society that is trapped in a moribund melancholy, only to be rescued by the (autobiographical?) hero Innocent Smith.  The novel is a frolicking portrayal of the fundamental goodness of reality over and against the dreary cynicism of German pessimism (which was en vogue at the time), scientism, and other social evils.

Chesterton puts the cause of the society’s problem in the mouth of Arthur Inglewood, a young man who is an amateur photographer:

“And yet I fancy all hobbies, like my camera and bicycle, are drugs too…Drugging myself with speed, and sunshine, and fatigue, and fresh air.  Pedaling the machine so fast that I turn into a machine myself.  That’s the matter with all of us.  We’re too busy to wake up.”*

It is not hard to hear Chesterton’s thought that people are “mentally paralysed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals” as a commentary on Inglewood’s language about being “too busy to wake up.”  But it is Inglewood’s interlocutor, Diana Duke, who asks the pertinent question:  “What is there to wake up to?”

Not surprisingly, Innocent Smith provides the answer.  Smith is a large but nimble man who announces his arrival by jumping over the wall of a garden and finds an extraordinary amount of joy in facts as simple as the one that he has two legs.  After all, had God decided otherwise, he could have had four.  Writes Chesterton:

[Smith] talked dominantly and rushed the social situation; but he was not asserting himself, like a superman in a modern play.  He was simply forgetting himself, like a little boy at a party.  He had somehow made a giant stride from babyhood to manhood, and missed that crisis in youth when most of us grow old.**

What do we wake up to?  Smith has woken up and discovered the world, which is so fascinating, so complex, and so good that it is a source of perpetual wonder, joy, and enchantment.  It is the external world—reality, or that which is outside of our minds—that we have been made for, and only in the apprehension of which can we find true and abiding joy.  Smith’s “forgetting himself” isn’t a work of effort—it is a natural result of being engrossed by other things and people.  Inglewood’s point that we are “too busy to wake up” is a wise caution to us all, especially to those who wish to consume and create new media.

For the previous installment in this series, click here.


*G.K. Chesterton.  Manalive. (Dover Publications:  Mineola, NY, 2005).  28.

**Ibid. 14.

Taken from The New Media Frontier edited by John Mark Reynolds and Roger Overton, ©2008.  Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187,www.crossway.org.  Download for personal use only.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

0 Comments

  1. Manalive is one of my favorite books, not because it’s novel form is particularly sophisticated but because of the idea of newness and freshness in life is so appealing to me. I love the idea of challenging nihilism with a pistol (not that I’d do it myself) or of challenging a lack of romance with perpetual marriage proposals. Chesterton had a funny way to view life.

    I hadn’t though, made the connection between new media and Chesterton’s view of the dull life. In a way, it’s similar to Huxley’s view in Brave New World: with soma we make ourselves obedient masters to mindless pleasure. Chesterton makes similar points in the “Elfland” chapter of Orthodoxy.

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  2. Error: I meant obedient slaves to the master of mindless pleasure.

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  3. “A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” [G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 4]

    I just finished The Poetics of Reverie by Gaston Bachelard, also on the subject that the most efficient, concentrated, beautiful and fully real life is found always in reverie, wonder, and play — I highly recommend it if you’re interested in these ideas.

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  4. […] To see the previous installment in this series, click here. *There is an underlying unity, then, with the danger of “overstimulation,” which we often (though not always) employ to avoid undesirable aspects of reality.  This also makes the external world a tool for our own ends (constant pleasure), rather than an end in itself. […]

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